Giant Steps РSeptember edition, Section 1

A. Reflections I

As we move into the fall and 2017 approaches its end, it is also an appropriate time for a bit of inside baseball regarding the Giant Steps column. The alliance with the Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society, now in its second run, is proving a wonderful and re-energizing experience. It has provided a home for what began as a blog nearly nine years ago at the City Paper. TJBS also gives me enormous freedom and creative latitude, something I never totally enjoyed in the previous places where this column was published.

But the one thing I don’t ever want to do is abuse that freedom, and while I am probably exhibit A when it comes to an insular, guarded individual in person, on paper (or in cyberspace) I can tend to get carried away as past editors will no doubt gladly let you know. The recent fiasco I had with this column where 2,500 plus words suddenly vanished into cyberspace heaven also was cause for some re-evaluation. First, that’s a lot of work down the chute. However second and more importantly, if I’m going to generate that much content, can it be better arranged and organized, as well as briefer in some areas.

The compromise will come just as we also expand to add a new section. The first section will continue to be a commentary/personal reflection. The second will be for jazz/blues reviews exclusively, both albums/CDs and books, as well as occasionally DVDs. The newest section will be titled Jazz Plus Etc., and will include reviews and material covering genres outside jazz/blues, but still connected within the vein of improvised and/or popular music.

Hopefully these new additions, as well as shorter reviews (except for the spotlight review) will result in a column still loaded with information and valuable material, but not so top heavy that if by chance I once again do something dumb and accidentally jettison another column it won’t be quite as big a disaster.

B. Reflections II – Pitchfork’s recent survey of the “200 Best Albums of the 60s.”

With arts coverage continuing to vanish from many newspapers, what little is left in most places is reserved for that narrow enclave of familiar names and constantly played music defined by the commercial culture gatekeepers as “pop.” In that universe, where anyone over the age of 30 or lacking a song on the charts within the last 2-4 months is concerned out-of-step, jazz and blues acts seldom are even part of the coverage equation. The same often holds true for the non-jazz/blues music press, who only rarely include jazz and blues artists or recordings in their publications or on their websites.

So Pitchfork, a site that isn’t normally on my radar, mainly gets high praise for its recent piece “The 200 Best Albums of the ’60s.” It was by far the most diverse that I’ve seen on a website where jazz and blues aren’t their highest or prime priority. By my count there were 48 albums by jazz and blues acts cited, and the list could be even longer if you counted some borderline artists. For instance, some might include The Soft Machine among jazz acts as an example of jazz-rock (I wouldn’t), and there are those who consider Nina Simone (three albums on this list) and Roberta Flack (one) jazz artists. They were excluded in my count, and Jimi Hendrix to me is more a rocker with a pronounced blues influence than a blues musician. Also, while adding Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto, artists like Jorge Ben and Tom Ze were not counted because their albums were more straight Brazilian music, while the Getz/Gilberto album (which was included in my count) is a genuine mixture of jazz and Brazilian elements.

The genre that did get the shaft was the blues. Only one Chess album (from Howlin’ Wolf), No B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Skip James or Mississippi Fred McDowell, but they did include Son House. The bigger shock was the absence of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “East-West,” an album hailed during that decade by the blues-rock crowd.

My other gripe would be the decision to rank these albums, thereby automatically getting into quality issues. Certainly those are a matter of individual taste. But while I love Albert Ayler, “Spiritual Unity” being rated ahead of “Giant Steps” and “Sketches of Spain” is at best debatable. So is the selection of “In A Silent Way” for Miles Davis’ highest ranked LP, and the total exclusion of “Bitches Brew,” arguably his most important electric/funk album. Soul-jazz also was completely shut out. No Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Grant Green. Blue Note led jazz labels in number of recordings, but somehow no Lee Morgan title made the survey.

Still, those are just personal gripes. Pitchfork rates plenty of credit for not excluding jazz as many of its contemporaries usually do. Here are the Top 10 jazz recordings (full list is available on theirwebsite

1. John Coltrane – “A Love Supreme” (Impulse) -(3)
2. Miles Davis – “In A Silent Way” (Columbia) (9).
3. Eric Dolphy – “Out To Lunch” (Blue Note) (15).
4. – Charles Mingus – “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (Impulse) (17).
5. Albert Ayler – “Spiritual Unity” (ESP) (30).
6. John Coltrane – “Giant Steps’ (Atlantic) (36).
7. Miles Davis – “Sketches of Spain” (43).
8. Pharoah Sanders – “Karma” (Impulse) (53).
9. Ornette Coleman – “This Is Our Music” (Contemporary) (57).
10. Bill Evans – “Sunday at the Vanguard” (Riverside) (59).